An NC candidate’s Banana Republic blunder is a reminder that we should retire the term

·3 min read

NC-13 Republican candidate Bo Hines said something laughable. On a conservative radio show last week, Hines and host John Fredericks talked about the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. Republicans say the search makes the United States look like a “banana republic.”

“I think that’s an insult to Banana Republics across the country,” Hines said. “I mean, at least the manager of Banana Republic — unlike our president — knows where he is and why he’s there and what he’s doing.”

I can’t lie; the video is funny. I don’t know how Fredericks was able to keep from laughing at a potential member of Congress thinking everyone has been talking about the preppy clothing store this entire time. It’s akin to Dan Quayle misspelling “potato” at an elementary school spelling bee. But now the phrase “banana republic” is everywhere, even more than it had been in the days prior. And I’m tired of seeing it.

Americans — mostly Republicans of late but also Democrats — bring up “banana republics” any time there is political unrest or abuse of power. It was used in reference to the attacks on the Capitol in January 2021, most notably by George Bush. Now, it’s being used by Trump hardliners to describe the FBI search and retention of documents from the former president’s home. In this shorthand, a banana republic is any corrupt government or political unrest, but the term specifically conjures images of Latin American countries such as Honduras, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

Initially, the term was used to describe countries where a corrupt government relied largely on a single export, like bananas, for their economy. The term was coined after the United Fruit Company colonized Honduras and other countries in Central America and the Caribbean. The company was able to influence the countries where they harvested bananas, and it also had powerful U.S. men on payroll. The Dulles brothers (Secretary of State and head of the CIA, respectively) were former legal advisors for the company; later, the duo helped overthrow the Guatemalan government, something that benefited United Fruit.

My family is the product of two of the original “banana republics.” My dad’s dad is a Cuban refugee. My dad’s mom is Honduran. My relationship with my culture is complicated, but I feel especially tied to Honduras, where my dad spent every summer growing up. I love hearing the nostalgia in his voice when he talks about these trips, especially when we visit a Durham Honduran restaurant when he comes to town.

These countries are not simply corrupt governments, but the products of exploitation: first by the Spanish, then by the United States. The governments grew corrupt because imperialism thrives on the exploitation of other lands and resources.

“Using the phrase banana republic to describe any attempted coup or insurrection draws on a century of stereotypes about Latin America created by the US to serve US interests,” wrote Trinity College Professor Darío A. Euraque after the events of January 6. The same could be said about using the term to describe the FBI’s recent search. “Banana republic” is derogatory. What’s surprising is how little I’ve seen Democrats and Latino Republicans push back against it.

Again, the Bo Hines video is funny. But it also reminds me that the real definition of “banana republic,” the one that “others” these Latin American countries, feels as charged as ever. It’s a phrase we should remove from our vocabulary altogether. Maybe the store should rethink it, too.